The Christian presence in the Middle East is both historic and declining. Here are some insights into what’s happening from researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
In 1910, Christians constituted 13.6 percent of the population in the Middle East (and about one-third of the world’s population overall). A hundred years later, in 2010, Christians made up only 4.2 percent of the population. By 2025, that number likely will drop to 3.2 percent, according to researchers Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo.
In an article in the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, Johnson and Zurlo write “in recent history, one of the most profound changes in the global religious landscape has been the unrelenting proportional decline of historic Christian communities in the Middle East.”
From 1500 to 1900, the proportion of Christians in the Middle East held fairly steady, at about 15 percent of the region’s population, they report.
MIGRATION IN AND OUT
From 1910 to 2010, the most dramatic drops in the Christian population in the Middle East occurred in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Palestine, countries where Christian populations fell by at least 10 percentage points. The reasons for the drop are varied, but include Christians fleeing the war in Syria, a lower birthrate for Christians than Muslims and difficulties faced by religious minorities in a number of countries.
In some Middle Eastern countries, the percentage of Christians in the population actually grew — particularly Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Christians moved to those countries — including migrants from the Philippines and South Korea — primarily for economic opportunity.
Another change: Demographically, the locus of world Christianity has shifted south. By 2025, Johnson and Zurlo predict, 70 percent of all Christians likely will live in the global South. “In one sense,” they report, “the shift to the Global South represents a return to the demographic makeup of Christianity at the time of Jesus — predominantly Southern — but also depicts a vast expansion of Christianity into every country as well as to thousands of different ethnicities, languages and cultures.”
The report states: “All of these trends point to an uncertain future for Christians in the Middle East and their relationship with global Christianity as a whole. Christians from historic communities in the Middle East are now present all over the world, and Christians from all over the world are increasingly drawn to the Middle East — economically, physically and ideologically. The dual migration trends of Christians to and from the region presents a unique challenge for supporting Christians in the Middle East as minority communities under intense social and political pressure.”